Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Meter Is Still Ticking, the Fuse Is Still Lit

So far as finding a publisher home for The Hundred Novels You Must Read Before You Write Your Own, you are in that fabled catbird seat at the moment, with two places playing tug-of-war and your agent telling you not to rule out a third.

But worst-case scenarios have been known to play out before, certainly within the parameters of your life.  Nevertheless, or even so, the worst-case scenario for this project has already come to pass.  The meter is still ticking, the fuse is still lit.  In that space between seeming inevitability in the next month or so, there is still the possibility for a comical puff, wanting to be an explosion.  The project, for one reason or another, can become another pile of pages in the piles of pages all over your studio.

Nevertheless, the worst-case scenario results now seem to reside in your discovering as you add sample entries for the proposal, now gone on to over fifty pages, how you are drawn to voice-heavy narrative and a story shape well away from an intricate plot.  

You can admire voice, characterization, narrative, and plot in James M. Cain's mesmerizing The Postman Always Rings Twice, but you could never write the way Cain does. Your tastes run toward quirky, flawed characters, working to overcome any or all of these:  physical anomalies, psychological mood swings, and some trait such as anger, addiction, or even timidity to be managed. These qualities you cite in your tastes are resident in Cain's work, but his characters are driven by other triggering devices.

You favor event-driven narratives rather than the intricacies of such master plotters as Harlan Coben and Lee Child, although you are not ready to find fault with either of these.  And as for narrative voice, you want the sound of James Lee Burke, who's narrative voice is reminiscent of a cow who wandered too close to barbed wire and is now paying the price for her negligence.

How easy it seers to make these observations with a list of one hundred novels at easy reach, with your growing sense of how to write five- or six-hundred-word essays about each, with a focus on the techniques that caught your eye and heart.  Seems.  Until you find yourself, transported back to the age of first discovery, which means opening paragraphs at least which border closer to naive narrator, one who feels the blast of emotional heat but is deprived, as he was at first blush of contact, with a more nuanced insight.  

Once or twice, there's no problem with the approach of full admiration, going in to the process where you saw more magic in each word, the alchemy of the professional writer, the man or woman who had to learn about word choices the same way a ballerina has to learn about movement and gesture through the purposeful identification of each muscle in each gesture.  

The cliche of the ballet master or choreographer, wandering about with a riding crop and gruff, Germanic or nasal Russian accent seems a parody of SM porn literature.  In reality, these individuals are using their riding crops or batons not to inflict pain but to give the dancer the best kind of direct identification, as in, "This muscle right here."  Writers know such individuals as editors.

The job of the choreographer or ballet master has the same relationship to the dancer as the editor has to the writer.  Scratching out the unnecessary adverb is not meant to inflict pain, rather it is meant to demonstrate how well the narrative works without the unnecessary flourish.  

What pleasure, then, to look through these titles and then the accounts of your early meetings with them, followed by your revisit, this time with more of an ability to look under the surface, to see connecting links, to see how basic most of your responses of pleasure, pain, exultation, humiliation, frustration, and unbridled optimism are not stand-along single emotions, instead a complex braid of supporting and conflicting emotions.

Meeting your younger self in the opening sentences and paragraphs of these essays is a vivid reminder that you may have on some level been able to understand the complexities of these emotions, but you needed somehow to acquire the experiences by which you could understand their braided complexity.

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